The glitz and glamour that usually greeted the Aiteo Cup, formerly known as the FA Challenge Cup, in the past, appear to have disappeared from the oldest football competition in Nigeria, reports IDRIS ADESINA
Twenty-five-year-old Emmanuel Nwafor was not aware that the final of the 2018 Aiteo Cup held on Wednesday. The banker was only aware that the UEFA Champions League matches would be played later that night.
“I know Nigeria has its own FA Cup but I don’t know what name it is currently called. I am a big fan of the Nigerian league and I support Enyimba. I make sure I watch all their matches as much as I can – even their CAF Confederation Cup matches this season,” he told our correspondent.
“But as much as I am active on twitter, I didn’t learn anything about this Aiteo Cup final you are talking about. But I will try to watch it when I get home after work – since it will be aired on cable TV.”
Tope Olaniyi, a 30-year-old engineer, learnt about the final on social media on Tuesday night.
He said, “As a faithful follower of Nigerian football, I didn’t know when the 2018 FA Cup started – I didn’t even know its name has changed. By the way, who puts a Cup final on a week-day, when people will be at work?
“Last year, when Akwa United won it, I thought it was a new competition entirely until a colleague explained to me that it was the FA Cup that has been renamed.
“The organisers didn’t do well to publicise the competition this year. In this era of social media, the organisers should have raised dust since January and let every football fan in the country know that the final is coming up on this date. We need to borrow a leaf from the developed countries and do things rightly.”
Nwafor and Olaniyi are not alone in this. They are just two of the five persons our correspondent spoke to in Lagos, who did not feel the buzz around the 2018 Aiteo Cup.
While some admitted to have heard about the final of the competition between Enugu Rangers and Kano Pillars, others were completely oblivious of any football final holding in Nigeria around the week.
Pulsating final, low awareness
The 2018 Aiteo Cup final will go down in history as one of the greatest come-backs in Nigerian football. In fact, the competition this year threw up a lot of interesting clashes and exciting football, which were good advertisements for Nigerian domestic football. Unfortunately, there was little awareness about these matches to Nigerians.
Only the semi-final matches between Katsina United and Kano Pillars and Nasarawa United and Rangers, aside the final, were televised.
The memorable final was played at a packed stadium in Asaba, the Delta State capital. The 22,000-seat capacity Stephen Keshi Stadium was filled to the brim and the fans were treated to a fantastic display of the football that the Cup competition was known for over the years. Rangers came from the dead and won the title.
The Flying Antelopes were three goals down to Pillars till the 75th minute. However, revival, led by Kelvin Itoya, saw the last 15 minutes of the duration time leaving fans of both teams with their hearts in their mouths. Rangers cancelled the three Pillars goals and went on to win the final on penalties.
But as memorable as the final was, it failed to show the glamour that had attended the competition in yester-years.
Glamorous cup competition
The Aiteo Cup has always been attended with much glamour. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, every football fan in Nigeria knew when the competition started till the final.
The competition has fans queuing for tickets days before any of the matches were played. Fans literarily slept at the stadium or storm the stadium as early as possible to watch their darling teams play bitter rivals. Many others walked for miles only to arrive at the stadium and find it filled to capacity, taking their places outside the playing arena. Yet, some others travel distances – to other parts of the country to have a glimpse of their team in action in the competition.
Musa Abdullahi, a 58-year-old trader in Mile 12 followed Kano Pillars as they went through the 1991 edition of the competition.
“I began following Pillars right from my youth days in Kano. I have fond memories of our participation in the Challenge Cup – that was what it was called then. We followed it with all passion,” Abdullahi recalled in an interview with SUNDAY PUNCH.
“The one I won’t forget was in 1991. As a young man, I travelled with my money to most of Pillars matches – I can’t remember all of them but I remember very well that the final was against El-Kanemi, another northern side.
“We lost that match and I cried bitterly because the players played very well. I can’t remember the names of the players now. There was one of the players we called Yaro Yaro; he was a fantastic player. I lost interest in football since then. (Pillars lost 3-2). I now watch Pillars whenever they come to Lagos to play.”
Tunde Aina supported the defunct Leventis United of Ibadan and would give anything to watch their matches, including travelling around the country.
The 62-year-old retired civil servant said, “The Challenge Cup was the reason why I am able to know some of the places I know in Nigeria today. Leventis played in the third division in 1984 but they were able to win the Challenge Cup that year. I still remember how Friday Ekpo (playing for the defunct Abiola Babes of Abeokuta) was crying.
“I was always late to the stadium; not because I wanted to be late but by the time I get there, the stadium would have been filled. So, I had to buy a seat at a higher price than was advertised.”
Musicians sang about the competition yearly as they sought to worm their way into the hearts of their fans and increase the mileage of their base. Legendary Apala crooner, Ayinla Omowura, titled his album in 1974 ‘Challenge Cup’ in dedication to the final of the competition between the defunct Mighty Jets of Jos and Rangers – a match won by the Flying Antelopes.
In the three minutes 15 seconds track, Omowura captured the feeling of the May 4, 1974 final, describing the atmosphere, from the start to the end of the match.
Another spectacle associated with the competition was the upset. Small teams would come from nowhere to give the big names tough fights or even win the competition. The Cup was no respecter of teams. An example was in 1999 when an unknown team, Arugo FC, shocked all the ‘traditional teams’ in the competition to reach the semi-finals. Their goalkeeper, Chijioke Ejiogu, who was popularly known as Arugo Monkey, was one of the stars of the competition that year.
Before then, in 1984, Leventis United came from the third division to beat Abiola Babes 1-0 in the final to win the title. Also, the final of the 1976 and ’77 Challenge Cups featured two lower-rung teams playing against the big names. Al-Yufsalam Rocks, a non-premier league side from Ilorin, played the ’76 final against Rangers while Racca Rovers of Kano battled Shooting Stars of Ibadan for the title in ’77.
Name change, erosion of glamour
Since its inception in 1942, Nigeria’s oldest football competition has changed name over the years. From War Memorial Challenge Cup in 1942 to Governors Cup in 1945, it became known as FA Cup in 1954.
The Challenge Cup was the name that was the most popular as it bore the name from 1960 to 1998. Then, in a bid to add colour, it got a title name to Cocacola FA Cup in 1999. Federation Cup was the name it bore from 2009 till 2017 when it became known as the Aiteo Cup.
Former Abiola Babes midfielder, Friday Ekpo, who played in four finals of the competition, believed the glamour of the competition eroded as the years went by.
Ekpo, a former Super Eagles player, stated, “What we have in common with the current competition is the name. The glamour has left and the competition is becoming less-popular. The Challenge Cup never comes unnoticed. It comes with a big noise and it is talked about for months till it returns.
“The name has only changed over the years and I think as the name changes, the glamour follows it. A lot needs to be done to return it to the past glamorous days.”
For a former Ranger captain, Christian Chukwu, who won the competition with Rangers in the 1970s, the competition lost its glamour because there was no longer proper organisation and creation of awareness for the competition.
“The Cup is a good advertisement for Nigerian football as we could see in the final match and some other matches in this year’s edition but the competition is no more as it used to be because it has not been properly planned over the years, thus losing its appeal to the public,” Chukwu, a former Super Eagles coach, said.
“The continuous change in the date in which the final is played hasn’t helped at all. Back then, every fan looked towards the final of the FA Cup in May. It is a competition that is full of surprises and upsets.
“The venue for the final is always known in the 70s and it doesn’t change from the National Stadium, Lagos, but in recent years, the final is being moved and no one can say that this is the stadium that will host the next final. The final used to be played on Saturdays but we are having it now on a week-day, which has not helped to attract the fans.”
Also, former international Yisa Shofoluwe, who won the competition with Abiola Babes, said, “There was huge rivalry in the competition back then with no crisis. Now, a lot of crises are seen in the competition.
“The final is held and virtually nobody is aware of it. That tells a lot of story to the organisers that a lot is wrong. The competition needs a lot of reorganisation and publicity to get back to its glorious days.”
Clubs see competition as a continental ticket
Currently, clubs in the country do not see the competition in the light it was seen in the past. Since winners of the competition represent the country in the CAF Confederation Cup, clubs do all they can to win it. After failing to get continental tickets in the league, they do all they can to get the Aiteo Cup and a place on the continent.
Nasarawa United goalkeeper Suraj Ayeleso said the club placed a premium on the Cup.
The goaltender stated, “Every player wants to play on the continent and since we couldn’t win the league, we had to put in our best to ensure that we win the Aiteo Cup. In 2016, we went close and got to the final but we lost on penalties. In 2018, we lost in the semi-finals.
“The club remind us every time that winning the Cup will project our image and we keep working hard to win it. We will come again next year, hoping we can win it.”
How can the glamour return?
Ekpo believed there should be a Hall of Fame for past winners of the competition, adding that Cup legends should be invited to the finals to inspire the players.
He said, “Many players don’t know the history of the competition. They only play for the sake of playing. There is a different spirit attached to the Cup that is not in the league. The organisers can have former Challenge Cup winners talking about memorable moments in the competition at matches – not only at the finals. To let the current players know what the competition is.”
Chukwu explained that the organisers could leverage on technology to bring a fresh breath to the competition.
“Technology has changed the face of everything and it can be used to the advantage of the competition. Awareness should be created in the social and traditional media. Dates and venues of final should always be announced and adhered to.
“The cable TV should also be used to spread information and from there, changes will occur in the competition.”